Clearspeak: Bang, bang, I was just defending myself

Community Columnist

Someone should have taught George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed teenager Trayvon Martin, the difference between forward and backward.

Now that Zimmerman has been indicted for second-degree murder, whether he continued to advance towards the teenager rather than, as the 911 dispatcher told him to, back away will prove crucial at trial where he will plead self-defense.

Even Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law, which unlike in New York imposed no duty on Zimmerman to avoid a confrontation, is unlikely to support a definition of “self-defense” that includes stalking the person you eventually shoot.

It’s hard to see how self-defense includes defending yourself in a fight you’ve picked. The affidavit the Florida prosecutor filed in support of Zimmerman’s indictment charges that Zimmerman “profiled,” “followed” and “confronted” Trayvon.

What is the law of self-defense, exactly, and how does New York’s law in this area differ from Florida’s?

In both states, the legal doctrine of self-defense allows people to use deadly force if they feel endangered. The question fundamental to both states’ laws is: to what extent must a person who feels endangered try to avoid the danger before using deadly force to defend against it?

Put another way, when do you have to retreat and how far?

In New York, the law is clear that the purpose of self-defense is escape from danger, not retaliation. So although you are legally entitled to defend yourself against bodily harm, the amount of force you use has to be proportional to the danger. This means that if your defense disables your attacker allowing you to escape – you’ve got to escape. Causing additional harm once the attacker can no longer cause you harm is not permitted.

These considerations are particularly important when a gun is involved. Section 35.15 of New York’s Penal Law allows a person to defend himself with “deadly physical force” when he “reasonably believes” the attacker is about to use deadly physical force. However, deadly physical force cannot lawfully be used in self-defense when the defender can “with complete safety as to himself and others avoid the necessity of so doing by retreating … ”

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